New Covid guidance amounts to a blanket ban on visiting for most care homes

Des Kelly OBE, Trustee, Relatives and Residents Association

A second surge of Covid19 has begun just as winter approaches and many in the care home sector are understandably concerned. The Relatives & Residents Association (R&RA) hears about these worries everyday on the charity’s helpline. It is clear that months of isolation for many older people in care home settings (as well as relatives) has been devastating. It has taken its toll on care home staff as well.

The Government has published its Winter Plan which updates guidance to take account of the introduction of a new Covid Alert Level System of three tiers. In so doing it has effectively reintroduced a blanket ban on visiting care homes in Tiers 2 and Tiers 3. Only those care homes within areas classified as Tier 1 will be allowed relatively normal visits by family and friends. For care homes in Tiers 2 and 3 visits are restricted to “exceptional circumstances only such as end of life”.

It feels as though, for care homes, there has been no learning from the experience of earlier in the pandemic. For this reason the R&RA has restated it’s call for all essential visitors to care homes, including relatives, to be given the same status as key workers to ensure safety remains at the highest levels inside homes. Key worker status would mean that all visitors would be given the same access to testing, Personal Protective Equipment and other infection control procedures. This would help to ensure the risk of disease transmission was limited and ensure high levels of safety for older people in care, their carers and visitors.

Callers to the R&RA Helpline complain their relatives in care are deteriorating, with people losing weight, losing speech, no longer recognising family members nor even ‘losing the will to live’. People living in care need to be reconnected with their support networks for the crucial emotional and practical support family/friends provide. From help with eating, to relieving the distress of dementia, many family carers play a vital role in helping protect the well-being of their relatives.

The need for better guidance from Government remains urgent to properly support care homes:

  • family carers can provide crucial practical and emotional support, they should be seen as a vital part of the care team and given status of key workers
  • visits should not be time-limited – they make visiting too distressing and are impractical
  • regular testing must be made available for visitors
  • the requirement for staff to supervise visits should be removed (except in exceptional situations such as safeguarding)
  • rather than blanket policies on visits, which put people’s rights at risk, decisions should be based on individual assessments
  • care providers need to have clear, practical guidance and support from the Government about managing visits.

It is vital that care homes asked to go into local or temporary lockdown need clarity on what is a ‘non-essential visit’. Individual needs and risk assessments should identify ‘essential’ family carers; providing support which helps ensure resident’s rights are protected. Such family carers should be subject to the same safety measures as staff. The pilot scheme announced by the Government on care home visiting feels like a sop which lacks both detail and urgency.

It cannot be right that seven months after care homes, up and down the country, went into lockdown, many older people are still unable to see their family and friends. The R&RA believe that it is essential that we work together to find a safe way to manage the virus in care settings and achieve a better balance between protecting older people from Covid19 and protecting their well-being. Care homes are people’s homes. People living in them don’t just want to survive, they want to live.

Edel Harris





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